There are times, a philosopher said, when the wise man should just keep quiet and offer up prayers for his countrys welfare.
As Aristotle noted long ago, two very different and sometimes incompatible ways of life—the political and the philosophical—exert a powerful pull on the ambitious and talented members of any society. Mary Ann Glendon, who teaches at Harvard Law School, says that she sees this double attraction in her students. Some go into politics, but many turn away, fearful of the compromises and corruptions of power. Such students may go on to become teachers and scholars, but they never quite give up on the idea of “making a difference” in the wider, public world, even if they arent quite sure how to do it. Ms. Glendons “The Forum and the Tower” profiles 12 figures in Western history who struggled—not always successfully—with the conflict between an active life and a contemplative one, between “life in the public forum and life in the ivory tower.”
Ms. Glendon begins with Plato, whose efforts to bring philosophy to the city—that is, to the polis or city-state—fell on the less successful side of the ledger. Two spells advising Syracusan tyrants ended in disaster: Platos counsel was ignored, and he almost lost his head. He had originally agreed with his teacher, Socrates, that good men had to get involved politically to avoid rule by the evil or weak. Now he felt that there could be circumstances so awful that the wise man should just “keep quiet and offer up prayers for his own welfare and for that of his country.” Still, Ms. Glendon observes, Platos political experience informed “The Laws,” his last and in many ways greatest book, in which he outlines the philosophical grounding of a just legal order.
Ms. Glendons two “superstars,” the two figures who best managed to fuse intellect with activity, are the ancient Roman leader Marcus Tullius Cicero and the 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke. She notes that both men viewed life in the public arena as the highest calling, and unlike Plato, both made a mark there—Cicero as senator, consul and defender of the Roman Republic against its internal enemies (a fight that cost him his life), Burke as an eloquent parliamentary opponent of the abuse of power, at home and abroad. Yet both men also found time to make extraordinary intellectual contributions. Ciceros renewal of the teachings of the Greeks, Ms. Glendon says, helped forge the “dynamic synthesis that was to nourish Western philosophy, politics, and law for centuries,” while Burkes “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790), predicting the Terror, became a classic of conservative thought, arguing that abstract ideals, ruthlessly applied, can destroy the complex tacit understandings that support a decent social order, resulting in tyranny.
When Ms. Glendons students recoil from politics, they may have Niccolo Machiavelli in mind: the amoral aide whispering stark political realities into the princes ear. Ms. Glendons chapter on the “enigma” of Machiavelli acknowledges the richness of the Florentines political writings, which drew on his experience as a diplomat and adviser. She does not believe, however, that his idea of statesmanship, aimed at power more than principle, is the last word on political success. Ideals, faith, reason—all, she notes, are part of political life. Any account that dismisses them in the name of “realism” mischaracterizes the true nature of politics and shrinks the range of the possible.
Burkes Parisian contemporary Jean-Jacques Rousseau was actually proud of his lack of political experience, believing that it preserved his independence and allowed him to write truthfully about society. The result was less truth than dangerous sophistry, Ms. Glendon argues. Rousseaus writings on justice and political obligation—admittedly torn from context and robbed of nuance—fueled the excesses of the French Revolution; his constitutional advice to the Corsicans was proto-totalitarian in its call for irresistible political power. If Cicero and Burke were philosopher-statesmen, and Machiavelli a prototype of the cynical political guru, Rousseau was an early example of the kind of literary extremist—in the French context, think of Jean-Paul Sartre or Pierre Drieu La Rochelle—whose political influence has routinely darkened the modern world.
Of course, political leaders and scholars can work together to good effect. Justinian I, who became the Christian emperor of Byzantium in 527, hired Tribonian, the top law “professor” of his day, to head up a group of scholars tasked with rescuing Roman law from the mess of the western empires collapse. Their efforts, Ms. Glendon reminds us, brought forth the Justinian Code, a body of work that would become the primary source for the Renaissances revival of Roman law—and ultimately of the Wests freedom-respecting civil-law systems. “Were it not for Justinian and Tribonian,” Ms Glendon writes, “the entire corpus of Roman law would almost certainly have been lost forever.” Such a collaboration is no less necessary today, as knowledge grows ever more specialized and complex.
“The Forum and the Tower” benefits from Ms. Glendons own divided calling. Her experience as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, in 2008-09, clearly informs her sympathetic treatment of the frustrated political ambitions of Alexis de Tocqueville and Max Weber, whose achievements proved to be almost entirely intellectual; her scholarly mastery of the law makes her chapters on Oliver Wendell Holmes and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights particularly luminous. The books argument might have been enriched by a chapter on the American founding, a period that combined intellectual firepower and political genius. And one would like to know what Ms. Glendon thinks about the role of serious thinkers in our age of celebrity politicians and shoot-from-the-hip pundits. Still, “The Forum and the Tower” is a wise exploration of the eternal tension between action and thought.
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